Sanders, J. Aaron. “Speakers of the Dead: A Walt Whitman Mystery”, Plume, 2016.
Walt Whitman, Detective
“Speakers of the Dead” is a mystery novel about the investigative exploits of a young Walt Whitman who explores the seedy underbelly of New York City’s body-snatching industry in order to exonerate his friend of a wrongful murder charge. Set in New York in 1843, young Whitman goes to the Tombs prison to visit Lena Stowe, a friend, who is to hang for the murder of Abraham Stowe, her husband. It is Walt’s plan to present evidence for Lena’s good but he is turned away by the sheriff. Lena hangs and Walt promises that he will exonerate her posthumously.
Walt’s boyfriend, Henry Saunders, from whom he has been estranged, returns to New York, and the two men discover a link between body-snatching and Abraham’s murder: a man named Samuel Clement. To get to Clement, Walt and Henry must go into the dangerous underworld where resurrection men steal the bodies of the recently deceased and sell them to medical colleges. Since there are no legal means to acquire cadavers, medical students rely on these criminals, and Abraham’s involvement with the Bone Bill (legislation that would put the resurrection men out of business) is what seems to have led to his and Lena’s deaths.
Reporter Whitman became involved in the case because the victims were close friends of his. Abraham and Lena Stowe are doctors who have dedicated their careers to furthering science and the role that women have in it by running a medical school for women to train to become doctors. When Abraham is killed for the murder of his supposed lover, his wife Lena is his supposed killer and she dies for it. However, the facts do not add up and Whitman decides to dig deeper into the mystery surrounding their deaths. He finds a link between his friends’ deaths and the graveyard body snatching in Samuel Clement.
The narrative is an interesting take on a young Walt Whitman as he develops and finds his voice. As he becomes involved with crime bosses who run the government and do not let the common people find justice, the story begins to move forward at a rapid pace. The plot follows some decent and some indecent surprising developments in the case.
This is a more than a mystery in which a young Walt Whitman helps to solve the case; it is also a historical novel. During the 19th century there was a lot said about medical schools using cadavers for dissection and education. Christians were against dissection as they felt that the bodies needed to be intact for “resurrection” to take place “at the end of time”. There were already medical schools and anatomy labs which had been burned in other states. Since there were no legal means of acquiring cadavers, medical students and their instructors had to rely on the illegal body trade which were controlled by those known as “resurrection men”. These businessmen would follow the obituaries and then dig up the recently deceased and sell them to medical schools. One of the characters here is Elizabeth Blackwell who is fighting to keep her medical school open and to further the cause for anatomical dissection as a value to furthering science. She later becomes the first woman to receive a medical license in the United States. The
mystery tries to uncover the actual public figures who are behind the “executions”. Whitman reveals clues as he continues to write special articles for the newspaper and he even manages to raise money to offer a reward to those who know who is behind the executions. More than that I cannot say.
The novel is written in polished prose that provides a great read. Author J. Aaron Sanders is great with detail and he balances history and murder wonderfully. I love his imagination and it is great fun to see so many literary characters together at one time. The portrait that we get of the young Walt Whitman is brilliant (and obviously well researched). Not only do we read about the young poet but also about his familial and romantic relationships and his ideas about life, religion, and the role of science. We see Whitman as a complex character that struggled with many of the same themes and ideas present in our society today. Here is a Walt Whitman who is young and ambitious, a reporter who risks his life for truth.